“Anxiety is a normal, predictable part of life,” said Tom Corboy, MFT, the founder and executive director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, and co-author of the upcoming book The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD.
However, “people with an anxiety disorder are essentially phobic about the feeling state of anxiety.” And they’ll go to great lengths to avoid it.
Some people experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), excessive anxiety about real-life concerns, such as money, relationships, health and academics, he said.
Others struggle with society anxiety, and worry about being evaluated or embarrassing themselves, he said. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might become preoccupied with symmetry or potential contamination, he said.
“The bottom line is that people can experience anxiety, and anxiety disorders, related to just about anything.”
Some people may not struggle with a clinical disorder, but want to manage sporadic (yet intrusive) bouts of anxiety and stress.
Whether you have occasional anxiety or a diagnosable disorder, the good news is that you can take small, effective and straightforward steps every day to manage and minimize your anxiety.
Most of these steps contribute to a healthy and fulfilling life, overall. For instance, “making some basic lifestyle changes can do wonders for someone coping with elevated anxiety,” Corboy said. Below, you’ll find 15 small steps you can take today.
1. Take a deep breath.
“Deep diaphragmatic breathing triggers our relaxation response, switching from our fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, to the relaxed, balanced response of our parasympathetic nervous system,” according to Marla Deibler, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia and Psych Central blogger.
She suggested the following exercise, which you can repeat several times: Inhale slowly to a count of four, starting at your belly and then moving into your chest. Gently hold your breath for four counts. Then slowly exhale to four counts.
2. Get active.
“One of the most important things one can do [to cope with anxiety] is to get regular cardiovascular exercise,” Corboy said. For instance, a brisk 30- to 60-minute walk “releases endorphins that lead to a reduction in anxiety.”
You can start today by taking a walk. Or create a list of physical activities that you enjoy, and put them on your schedule for the week. Other options include: running, rowing, rollerblading, hiking, biking, dancing, swimming, surfing, step aerobics, kickboxing and sports such as soccer, tennis and basketball.
3. Sleep well.
Not getting enough sleep can trigger anxiety. If you’re having trouble sleeping, tonight, engage in a relaxing activity before bedtime, such as taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music or taking several deep breaths.
And, if you’re like many people with anxiety whose brains start buzzing right before bed, jot down your worries earlier in the day for 10 to 15 minutes, or try a mental exercise like thinking of fruits with the same letter.
4. Challenge an anxious thought.
“We all have moments wherein we unintentionally increase or maintain our own worry by thinking unhelpful thoughts. These thoughts are often unrealistic, inaccurate, or, to some extent, unreasonable,” Deibler said.
Thankfully, we can change these thoughts. The first step is to identify them. Consider how a specific thought affects your feelings and behaviors, Deibler said. Is it helpful or unhelpful?
Unhelpful thoughts usually come in the form of “what ifs,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” or “catastrophizing,” Deibler said. She gave these examples: “What if I make a fool of myself?” “What if I fail this exam?” or “What if this airplane crashes?”
These are the types of thoughts you want to challenge. Deibler suggested asking yourself:
“Is this worry realistic?” “Is this really likely to happen?” “If the worst possible outcome happens, what would be so bad about that?” “Could I handle that?” “What might I do?” “If something bad happens, what might that mean about me?” “Is this really true or does it just seem that way?” “What might I do to prepare for whatever may happen?”